The Mental Health Benefits of Naps
What’s your reaction when your client leans forward in her chair and her voice drops to a whisper as she confides, “You know, I just get so sleepy after lunch that I feel I must have a nap, or I can’t function — but then I feel so guilty!”? Do you nod sagely, “getting” what she says because you feel guilty about the same thing? Do you immediately jump into analysis and problem-solving in order to figure out why she’s sleepy, and how she can avoid it to be a more productive human being (notice the subtle judgments here)? Or do you take a different tack: deciding to offer some psychoeducation about the many benefits of napping? This post is about making that last option easier for you.
Naps and evolution: From polyphasic to monophasic to bi-phasic
More than 85% of mammalian species are polyphasic sleepers, meaning that they sleep for multiple short periods during a 24-hour cycle. Our primate ancestors, who lived in caves and trees, also had several sleeps during a day, but in coming down to live on open ground, our evolution took us into monophasic sleeping, in which there is a single sleep period during the 24-hour day. Among children, the elderly, and the majority of the population in cultures such as Mexico, Brazil, Spain, and France, there is a strong tradition of a long sleep and a short one in a day: that is, a nightly sleep and a daytime nap, or a bi-phasic pattern (Bulkeley, 2018; National Sleep Foundation, n.d.). In our increasingly sleep-deprived western cultures, we cast a covetous eye at our napping peers, and yet, at the same time there is a stigma about getting shut-eye in the middle of the day — and many don’t know how to “do” a nap in order to get the maximum benefits and avoid the undesirable side effects. We’ll look at all those aspects here: the benefits, the stigma, the “how to” for greatest benefit, and also some of the client conditions which might be helped by a daily horizontal period.
First, if your client is a “natural” napper, you can reassure the person that they are in excellent company. Here are a few well-known folk who regularly napped: Leonardo Da Vinci, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gene Autry, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (Hyatt, n.d.; National Sleep Foundation, n.d.). All of them saw advantages in going “off air” for a few minutes, despite having (for the presidents and prime minister at least) one of the most powerful, responsibility-laden jobs in the world.
Benefits of a mid-day snooze
We nap for lots of reasons: to catch up on lost sleep (think of mums of infants!), because we anticipate sleep loss later (think of a worker starting a spate of graveyard shifts), and even because we’re bored (think of students on that long summer holiday). The overwhelming sleepiness many feel during mid-afternoon is caused by a natural dip in alertness between 1 and 3 p.m. (Lovato, 2018). Taking a quick power nap relieves the sleepiness almost immediately with the effects lasting for several hours, but does much more than that. For healthy adults, napping:
Induces relaxation and reduces fatigue
A nap won’t make up for serious sleep deprivation, but our busy, noisy environments — along with the electromagnetic frequencies of all our electronics — can generate extra fatigue and stress that a nap can reduce.
Restores alertness and improves performance (including learning, reaction time, and working memory). A NASA study on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100%.
Prevents burnout and reverses information overload
We say we’re too busy to nap, that it would be less productive, but a study in which subjects performed a visual task over four days found that their performance deteriorated over the sessions. When the subjects were allowed to take a 30-minute nap after the second session, their decline in performance halted. When they took an hour-long nap, their performance actually improved in the third and fourth sessions.
When we are stressed, our bodies use higher levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin (which produces feelings of wellbeing) and the production of more of it is blocked. We become anxious, irritable, and depressed. A nap bathes our brains in serotonin, reversing those effects and creating a positive outlook.
Heightens senses and creativity
Not only do foods taste better and pretty scenes look more beautiful, but also connections between separate insights are perceived as the nap heightens senses and creativity.
Improves health, enhances sexual function, and aids in weight loss
Napping releases growth hormone, the antidote to the stress hormone cortisone, thus boosting the immune system, priming sexual function, reducing stress, and aiding in muscle repair and weight loss.
Reduces the risk of heart attack
A study of 23,681 Greek men over six years showed that the nappers had a 37% lower risk of dying from heart disease (Lovato, 2018; Mayo Clinic, 2015; McKay & McKay, 2018; National Sleep Foundation, n.d.).
Napping: A quick-start guide
As napping is a natural drive, it is surprising how little people know about doing it in an effective way. There are a few generally-agreed tips for making naptime effective.
Schedule naps for early to mid-afternoon
There is a window of opportunity for “best napping period”: too early in the day and we are not yet sleepy from last night’s sleep; too late and we interfere with sleepiness for the coming night’s sleep. Robert Oexman, M.D. and sleep director of the Sleep to Live Institute, recommends napping consistently between the hours of 12:00 and 2:00 p.m. This scheduling keeps us compatible with our natural circadian rhythms, which see most people having the greatest shift (toward sleepiness) at night and the second after lunch (Sinrich, 2017).
Keep it short: Under 30 minutes is best
Research indicates that between 10 and 30 minutes is best. After 30 minutes, we begin to go into deeper, slow-wave sleep, which — if we have not set an alarm — could see us sleeping through a full 90 minute sleep cycle. Awakened before that but after 30 minutes, we may have “sleep inertia”, that feeling of grogginess and disorientation that can come from being awakened from a deep sleep; unfortunately, it can impact the coming night’s sleep. On the short end, research reported in the journal Sleep showed that just 10 minutes of shut-eye resulted in the greatest benefit in terms of increased alertness and improved cognitive performance: an effect that could last as long as 155 minutes (nearly three hours) (National Sleep Foundation, n.d.).
Another study showed that even six minutes of napping improved memory function (McKay & McKay, 2018). Peak performance — mentally, physically, and emotionally — has also been associated with shorter periods of 20 to 30 minutes. Oexman sees two exceptions to the under-30-minutes rule: people who had to cut their sleep very short the night before may need a slow-wave nap of 90 minutes, and shift workers, such as nurses or pilots, may benefit from a 45 to 60 minutes of sleep (Sinrich, 2017; Hyatt, n.d.).
Cool, dark, and quiet does it: Creating the optimal environment
The conditions our bodies require for a decent nap are the same as those required for a good sleep at night: that is, a quiet, dark-as-possible, fairly cool environment. Additionally, in sleep our metabolism falls, our breathing rate slows, and our body temperature drops slightly, so most people will be more comfortable if they use a light blanket when napping (Hyatt, n.d.; Sinrich, 2017).
Mind that reputation: Use discretion
More and more organisations are realising the bottom-line benefits of allowing that short siesta after lunch, but let’s face it; there is still a stigma about midday sleeping, with nappers being regarded as lazy, having low standards or no ambition, or engaging an activity best reserved for children, the sick, and the elderly (National Sleep Foundation, n.d.). To avoid that, nappers with a nearby car often eat for half their lunch period, then lie down in their car for the other half. Some organisations have couches or quiet rooms available for rest (unusual, though, in our experience), and some organisational cultures find it acceptable to have a person head down on their desk for a few minutes.
Western cultures in general, however — with the exception of those siesta-taking countries named above — don’t condone sleeping at work, so the ability to take a power nap may lie in how a person’s daily rhythm is; people working from home are blessed in this respect! We can only hope that increased education about the benefits of napping begins to create a culture-wide shift.
Client conditions which may benefit from napping
Napping can be planned (as when someone goes to sleep before actually getting sleepy because they realise they will be up later than their normal bedtime — say, when starting a night shift of work), emergency (as when someone is so tired or so drowsy that they cannot continue with their planned activity — say, driving a long distance), or habitual, when a person takes a nap at the same time each day. Given this, we can discern a number of conditions that may benefit from one of the types.
New mother exhaustion
A client of one of the writing team presented for issues of anxiety and exhaustion. A mum of a one-year-old, she had been recently left by her partner, and their child was very active, sleeping very little, with multiple awakenings through the night. The client was getting only broken sleep, and little of it at that. Along with working on issues of perfectionism via CBT and learning mindfulness skills, the client was encouraged to go down for a nap habitually in the afternoon when her son did.
People with sleep disorders and related conditions, such as narcolepsy or sleep apnoea, may benefit from regular naps.
One of the symptoms of depression is fatigue. Sufferers may spend more time sleeping, partly from wanting to avoid confronting the life problems that seem so intractable, and partly because they are genuinely tired. For this condition, a short power nap may be beneficial, or it may deepen the depression. You could urge clients to consult with their doctor regarding this, but two criteria for whether the nap is helpful or not are whether or not the client feels refreshed after taking it, and whether the nap interferes with nightly sleeping (Breus, 2016).
When a boost of creativity is needed
If your client is writing, painting, or doing any creative work and the solution for a creative problem is evading her, a shot of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep might help, as it increases creativity, although she may need a longer nap to get into the REM stage (the earlier in the day the better, as REM potential declines through the day).
When the client needs extra stamina
Is the client running a race? Competing in a sports competition or some activity that will be mentally or emotionally demanding? Encourage him to nap beforehand.
When there is a need to relax and de-stress
At stressful times of life, a client may decide to nap just to push the “reset” button with a nap, allowing the body to have a break from all the cortisol production in order to repair itself.
Prophylactically, in anticipation of losing out on sleep later
As we noted above, those beginning a night shift or needing to be up for other reasons (such as studying, travelling, or attending to others’ needs) can benefit from a nap ahead of time.
When needing to do well on an exam
If the challenge is to do well on a cognitive performance such as a test, encourage the client to take a 90-minute sleep (which gets her into slower wave sleep) after the study and before the test. Getting to Stage 2 (light sleep) will increase alertness, and Stages 3 and 4 (REM and deep sleep) will clear her mind of unnecessary clutter, consolidating the information just learned and moving it from temporary into permanent storage.
When immediate alertness is needed: The coffee nap
Researchers at Loughborough University found that the most effective way to quickly heighten alertness is to drink a cup of coffee, tea, or other caffeinated drink, and then immediately take a 15-20 minute nap. The caffeine begins to “work” just as the person is coming out of the nap, blessing them with an abundance of alertness, between the caffeine and the nap. The combination is said to be more powerful than either alone (McKay & McKay, 2018).
Sleeping and mental health — a “heads up”
Sleeping problems and mental health problems go hand in hand, and their relationship is a complex topic. Watch this space for future articles outlining this complicated dynamic, but for now, know that, for both healthy adults and also a number of mental health conditions, a nap is helpful.
The after-lunch sleepiness that is a natural part of our circadian rhythm does not mean a person is lazy, lacking in ambition, or unhealthy, and the would-be napper has distinguished company in other famous nappers. You can help the client to improve mood, boost cognitive performance, heighten creativity, and boost health through wise use of naps. Encourage the client to do early to mid-afternoon naps — at the same time every day if they are to become regular — in a dark, cool, quiet environment for 10 to 30 minutes. There is no shame in wanting a nap; when the urge hits, it is a shame not to reap the benefits by giving into it!
- Bulkeley, K. (2018). Four reasons why you should take a nap. Psychology Today Blog. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Breus, M. (2016). Sleep and mental health disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Hyatt, M. (n.d.). 5 reasons why you should take a nap every day. Michaelhyatt.com. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Lovato, N. (2018). Guilty about that afternoon nap? Don’ be. It’s good for you. The conversation. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Mayo Clinic. (2015). Napping: Do’s and don’ts for healthy adults. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- McKay, B., & McKay, K. (2018). Unleash the power of the nap. Art of Manliness. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). Napping. National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Sinrich, J. (2017). How to take a nap that will actually boost your energy. NBC News. Retrieved on 31 July, 2018, from: Hyperlink.